All those times I'd driven by that corner, there'd never been a stop sign there before. This unfamiliar sight grabbed my full attention, and I braked carefully. As I stepped on the gas again, I had an idea: If stop signs could help me do what I'm supposed to, maybe they could help my kids pay attention, too.
"Did you pick up your dirty clothes?" "Did you turn off the lights?" "Did you bring your dishes to the sink?" I hate reminding as much as the kids hate being reminded. What if a few simple stop signs could finally make my nagging obsolete?
When I arrived home, I got right to work with paper and markers to make three signs. When they were done, I placed them where the greatest number of cleanup violations took place in our home: the bedrooms. I hung my creations at each child's eye level, in the doorways of the bedrooms. They read: "Stop! Did you pick up your clothes?" I stood back and chuckled. Even the shortest member of our family would be unable to say, "But I didn't see it." Starting now, I was officially on mute regarding misplaced dirty laundry.
Soon enough, chatter filled the house as my kids went about their daily after-school routines. I grinned when I heard, "Mom, what's this for?" It was Cole, age 11, standing in his doorway. His brother, Cade, 8, ran to join him and asked, "And what do the oopses mean?" Their sister, Lindsay, 13, was close behind.
"Well..." I said, drawing out the suspense. "There are twelve oops tabs on the bottom of each sign. Each one left at the end of the week earns ten minutes of screen time on Saturday."
Sixth-grade-math whiz Cole said, "That's two hours!"
I smiled. "Yes, and here?s the deal. For each piece of clothing that I have to pick up off your bedroom floor, I'll tear off one oops.'"
I have to admit, I was especially proud of the tabs, which had been inspired by those flyers printed with phone numbers to tear off for later reference. The tabs could be ripped away faster than I could say, "Did you remember to..." and they'd make tracking the kids' progress simple.
When I'd finished explaining the new system, something magical happened. Without a word from my lips, all three of my children began scrambling to grab every sock, sweater, and pair of jeans from the floor. There was actually a line at the laundry chute in the hallway! To me, this scene was more beautiful than any vista I could imagine.
The first week, the system worked incredibly well. No one lost more than two oops tabs, and the kids enjoyed watching a movie together on Saturday morning -- definitely a treat in our home. But by the end of week two, the kids were automatically ducking their heads as they went in and out of their rooms to avoid brushing against the stop signs. My nagging remained on mute, but I was tearing off oops tabs daily.
By the Saturday of the second week, no one had more than two tabs left. Twenty minutes of screen time might be enough to check e-mail or buy an iTunes song, but it's not enough to play a favorite game. I heard my boys strategizing, "I'll pick up your stuff if you forget, and you pick up mine, OK?"
By the end of week four, I noticed some new habits forming. Rather than tossing clothes on the floor to be picked up later, the kids had begun taking care of their things right away. Success!
It was time to move my signs to another zone of neglect: our minivan. I had been counting the days that the remains of a bowl of split pea soup, partly consumed on the way to soccer practice, had been sitting on the floor of our van. It had been there long enough for the peas to return to their previous dehydrated form. Yet my kids slid in and out of the van without even noticing the cemented soup or the other garbage that littered our vehicle. I was betting the signs would help with that.
And they did. The boys began cleaning up the van as soon as they noticed the new signs on the inside of both sliding doors (complete with 12 tabs each), then they filled in Lindsey when we picked her up from tennis lessons. This time the kids would be working collectively for a Saturday trip to a local fun center. Each oops tab represented five dollars of the sum we planned to spend.
At first, the children had an "Am I my brother's keeper?" attitude when it came to tidying the van. If one kid spotted his sibling's empty juice box, he didn't pick it up. But after I reached in to clear six scraps of trash (costing them six tabs and 30 dollars' worth of fun), they quickly became less interested in whose trash it was and more concerned with removing it.
Since then, my stop signs have worked their magic when hung by chronically ignored light switches, a breakfast bar too often cluttered with used cereal bowls, and the mudroom, with its jumble of dropped coats, sports gear, and shoes.
While having a cleaner home certainly is wonderful, the stop signs have accomplished something even lovelier. They've silenced my once constant requests and reminders. With the nagging on mute, our home is a happy place. And that's something I hope will never stop being true.
To make your own signs, write your reminders with bold marker on brightly colored paper. For kids who can't read yet, draw a picture of the desired outcome. Cut 12 tabs and write oops on them. To hang the sign in a doorway, punch a hole in the top corners of the sign and insert knotted strands of yarn. Use tape to secure the yarn to the top of the doorframe so that the sign hangs at your child's eye level.
Shannon Popkin lives with her family in Wyoming, Michigan.
Originally published in the June/July 2012 issue of FamilyFun magazine.